This article is a guest post by Rabbi Jacob Lieberman of Temple Beth El in Delaware. He is also a member of Rabbis Without Borders.
Recently, I attended a conference for rabbis of all different denominations through Rabbis Without Borders (RWB), a program of the National Jewish Center for Leadership and Learning (CLAL). RWB is a network of rabbis who, though we have different strategies and experiences, all share a vision for creating resilient, optimistic, and forward-facing Jewish practices and communities. I “made the cut” as a Fellow in RWB, which accepts fewer than 20% of all applicants, prior to starting at Temple Beth El, and I’ve been grateful to the Temple leadership for their support of my participation. The experience I have had in RWB, learning new skills and ideas, connecting with other rabbis conceiving of and implementing bold innovations, and gaining access to the resources at CLAL, has been excellent. My participation has already impacted the work I do here at Temple Beth El as a rabbi and spiritual leader, and I would be happy to share more individually with those of you who are interested. The conference I attended in February was the third of three conferences for my fellowship year and I now “graduate” to become an alum, which means I will stay involved in the rabbinic network and possibly other CLAL programs as well.
At this last retreat, amidst other learning, we made space for a different kind of conversation that while difficult was very important, even necessary. We talked about the allegations of sexual assault, harassment and misconduct that, once revealed, coalesced into the #MeToo movement this past fall. Women gathered alone to share privately, and separately the men met, and then we joined together as one group.
These conversations uncovered a tremendous amount of pain, not only the raw pain of remembered or recent assault and harassment, nor only the pain of confusion and misunderstanding about changing gender norms, but also the pain of ongoing sexual inequality between women and men in the Jewish community. Rabbis spoke passionately and persuasively about the unacceptable ways in which congregants, lay leaders, reporters, colleagues, etc. spoke to them, or about them, or related to them differently because they are women. And there was more about the experience of women in our Jewish communities. Perhaps because of my experience as a transgender man, I understood what they shared very deeply. But because I am human, and a religious leader, I understood that this pain, others’ and mine, was bubbling up as a reminder that we have failed in our shared responsibility to fully honor the Divine image of women. For this reason, I want to share with you (what you may already know): We have much work to do in the Jewish community on the issues of sexual assault and harassment and sexual inequality. I invite you to join me in trying to shed light, here, where there is darkness.
I would like to share a few practical suggestions for transforming the inequitable power structures that limit women (and consequently men) from embodying our full humanity, from my colleague Rabbi Rachael Bregman, serving Temple Beth Tefilloh in Brunswick, GA. Rabbi Bregman shared an advanced copy of an article she is writing on #MeToo with me. Here are a few of her questions / suggestions for where to start in doing this work in a synagogue setting: When we serve food, who prepares it, who serves it, and who cleans up after? Do we have policies and procedures in place if there is an incident at the Temple? Do we call on and invite participation by women and do we ask men to wait to speak a second time until everyone has had a chance to talk at least once? Who lifts the Torah and who dresses it? Do we study texts by Jewish women as well as Jewish men? How do we talk about women? Bregman’s article is forthcoming, and she lays out her thoughts more fully than I can do justice to in this Shofar article. The areas she touches on, however, can guide our own thinking about where to shed light on the darkness around us.
To sum up, I want you to know that these conversations are happening in the Jewish community, not only at RWB and CLAL but in other spaces as well, thanks in part to the leadership of the RWB director, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, and the power of the network. We can have this conversation here at Temple Beth El, too, and my purpose in using my space in this newsletter to talk about this topic is to let you know that you have a willing partner on this in me. Finally, I want to share that I know that this is a sensitive topic and that just my speaking openly about sexual assault and harassment will be a trigger for some of you. The risk of silence seemed too great. If I have unintentionally raised any unwelcome memories or feelings, and you think that I can be of service to you, in listening and offering my presence, please know that my door is always open to you. May our awareness of and attention to these important issues bring blessings and more peace into our our homes, our synagogue, and our lives.